As another Christmas season comes to a close, I can’t help but think of Christmases past. Starting with Black Friday and ending with the rush to return unwanted Christmas gifts on Dec. 26, it seems that commercialism has taken over the holiday. For me, the holiday spirit is still all about the giving and it is because of a Christmas spent far from home on a lonely hilltop in Bosnia.
It is always easy for me to get into the holiday spirit. I grew up in Edmonds in a less diverse time. So I was an easy choice for one of the three wise men at Holy Rosary’s Christmas pageant. Going to Catholic school, you learn about the origin of Christmas. In 1996, as a soldier deployed to Bosnia, I found the true meaning of Christmas on a small hilltop outside of Tuzla.
It was not my first Christmas away from home, but it was by far my most isolated. We had a little artificial Charlie Brown Christmas tree in our tent and the six of us decided to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. We each drew a name out of a hat for a Secret Santa gift giving. The concept was simple; people do it all the time. There was just one problem: Where were we going to get gifts?
We were on a little outpost on a hill with less that 60 people. There was nowhere to buy anything. This is before everyone had laptop computers and wireless Internet. So we couldn’t order gifts online. We had to be creative. It was great to see the guys get into the Christmas spirit by trying to find something good or interesting for a buddy.
There were packages addressed to “Dear any soldier” that were checked. Some people went into their own personal stashes for presents. I had something I was saving for myself for a special occasion but chose to give away instead.
The presents were wrapped with newspaper or whatever else we could find and placed under the tree. We all waited until Christmas morning to distribute the gifts. In the true spirit of Christmas, it was all about the gift giving and not the receiving. No one cared about material things and were happy to receive the gifts they were given. Whether it was a sun visor with a built-in fan, a Frisbee or a pair of fine Cuban cigars, everyone was happy to receive whatever they got. To make it more festive, it had snowed a short time earlier so we had a white Christmas.
Now, when the holiday seems craziest, I just think back to that time when Christmas was about giving your buddy a gift that would make him smile. If I am out shopping, in the midst of all the holiday chaos, I think about getting a gift where the person will know I put some thought into it. I think that is the best gift of all, to let someone know you were thinking about them during the holiday season and that they were not just a check mark on a list.
For me, I still love to see the look on a person’s face when they open the present I gave them. The fact that I get gifts on Christmas is a bonus. I also have never returned a gift. No matter what it is, I will use it. I don’t think of it as wearing an ugly sweater. I think of it as displaying the thought someone put into me.
A lot of that comes from that little Christmas on a lonely hill in Bosnia. When six infantrymen shared the true meaning of Christmas.